In the fight over what little soul is left of the Republican Party, Mitt Romney has shown his willingness to double down on racial injustice.
Romney did so in his support for the expansion of laws that deny people convicted of felonies the right to vote after they have served their time. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, four states (Florida, Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia) permanently bar persons with any felony convictions from voting after they serve their terms. Seven other states bar some persons with felony convictions from voting.
The impact of this policy is not race-neutral because our criminal justice system is not race-neutral. As the United for a Fair Economy noted in its “State of the Dream” report last week, “though Blacks comprise only a little over 12
percent of the total population, they make up close to 40 percent of the prison population.” The racial discrepancies between incarceration rates for black and white people have risen beginning in the 1980s, coincident with the war on drugs and the tough-on-crime statutes ushered in by President Reagan and his conservative allies. As a result, the report notes, “Before the “prison boom” beginning in the 1980s, about 10 percent of Black male high school
dropouts were incarcerated; by 2008, that number had risen to 37 percent. By comparison, the average
incarceration rate in the general population was less than 1 percent (0.76 percent).”
Now even some conservatives realize that they have created a massive injustice that makes a mockery of American values. Presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul has advocated addressing drug prosecution policies that incarcerate a far higher percentage of African Americans than whites even though drug use is roughly the same across racial lines. And on Saturday’s Fox News/Wall Street Journal presidential debate in South Carolina, candidate Rick Santorum, called out Romney on the issue, after a super-PAC supporting Romney blasted Santorum for supporting giving voting rights to convicted felons. Santorum, to his credit, didn’t back down.
“This is a huge deal in the African-American community, because we have very high rates of incarceration, disproportionately high rates, particularly with drug crimes, in the African-American community.” Santorum said. “The bill I voted on was the Martin Luther King Voting Rights bill. And this was a provision that said, particularly targeted African-Americans. And I voted to allow — to allow them to have their voting rights back once they completed their sentence.”
BlackAmericaWeb.com reports that the 2002 legislation Santorum was referring to “would have overridden state laws on federal elections. It would have required states to let felons register to vote once they completed their prison sentences and any probation or parole.”
Romney responded, “I don’t think people who have committed violent crimes should be allowed to vote again. That’s my own view.”
He went on to blame “an 85 percent Democratic legislature” for his failure to make that the law of the land in Massachusetts when he was governor. That state now allows people in probation or on parole to vote, as well as people who have completed their sentences.
It is not clear whether his qualifier of “violent crimes” means he would side with the states that allow some felons to vote, or if he thinks of all felons as “violent.” (Put another way: If a bank president is convicted of a felony for actions that caused thousands of people to lose their homes or their jobs, should that person lose his voting privileges for life? Or should you get better treatment, and restored access to the levers of democracy, for stealing millions with a computer keyboard than you do if you steal hundreds of dollars with a gun? And is financial fraud that destroys the economic fortunes of thousands of people less violent than an armed purse-snatching?)
While these policies are determined now on a state-by-state basis, what a presidential candidate thinks about this is not academic. In states under the purview of the Voting Rights Act, a president that believes that felons who have served their time should not be able to vote would not use the Justice Department to go after states that agreed with that view, regardless of the disparate racial impact.
Furthermore, consider legislation introduced by Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., last year that would add a “right to vote” to the United States Constitution. That would seem unnecessary until you consider that, as my colleage Terrance Heath pointed out months ago, there is no constitutional “right to vote”; there is only a constitutional bar against discriminating on the basis of race, color, creed, religion or gender. Romney would apparently oppose a constitutional right to vote, just as he opposes Santorum’s legislative remedy.
A criminal justice system that catches as many as one in four African American males in its maw as a result of racially discriminatory practices, and then says that regardless of what these people have done to change their lives, they will not have a chance to vote and will be precluded from jobs and other necessities for rebuilding their lives, is criminal and unjust. It is not a surprise that in his bid to claim the mantle of conservatism, Romney would not confront an edifice in which conservatives have invested so much. That makes it no less shameful.
Speaking of shameful, in the same debate Monday, Rick Perry denounced the Justice Department for its declaration that South Carolina’s Voter ID law ran afoul of the Voting Rights Act, using language that would have made the fathers of the Confederacy proud. “I’m saying also that South Carolina is at war with this federal government and with this administration,” Perry said.
Writing today in The Huffington Post, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said, “In South Carolina, the DOJ concluded minority voters would be 20 percent more likely to be disenfranchised than white voters. Now, South Carolina plans to appeal the decision, seeking a Supreme Court decision overturning parts of the Voting Rights Act, Dr. King’s proudest triumph.”
The war language is vintage Perry, he of the secessionist threat. So is his statement at the debate that if he were president “the states are going to have substantially more right to take care of their business.” What’s deplorable is that 150 years after a civil war over states’ rights and slavery, and on the day commemorating the civil rights movement that rose up to purge the toxins left behind by that war, people like Rick Perry seem eager to provoke another civil war, and no one on the debate stage thought it important to rhetorically grab him by the arms and hold him back.
It’s more evidence that the conservatives who monopolize the Republican Party would rather lecture black people than work to make true equality a reality.